LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AFP) – Teenage migrants stranded for weeks in poor conditions on an Italian island visited by Pope Francis this week are the true victims of an immigration system that can fail the most vulnerable, charity operators say.
After the pope on Monday travelled to Lampedusa and called for an end to indifference to the plight of refugees around the world, charities said one example was that of the unaccompanied minors he met with.
Save the Children said there were currently 75 migrant minors on Lampedusa including 48 from Eritrea and 22 from Somalia, aged between 13 and 17 years old.
Many of them -- dressed in tracksuits and white baseball caps -- met the pope and sang for him at a mass next to the abandoned boats they arrived on.
At other times, there have been hundreds stuck on the Italian outcrop because places in children's homes have to be found for them, while adult refugees are transferred more quickly to migrant centres on the mainland.
"The worst aspect is the lack of a structured national system to host unaccompanied foreign minors," said Raffaella Milano, programme director at Save the Children Italy, which has taken a leading role in looking after the children who arrive on the island.
Milano said the problem was the lack of real-time notification of when and where places might be available in communities that can host children so as to allow them to be moved off Lampedusa.
On the island itself, there are only 50 places for unaccompanied minors and mothers with children.
It can quickly become badly overcrowded when hundreds of migrants arrive by boat on a single day.
At the moment, 25 of the children sleep on the ground.
Vincenzo Spadafora, a government-appointed national official on children's issues, said the pope's visit was like a "punch in the stomach" which should encourage authorities to do more for the protection of minors.
"The unaccompanied minors who arrive on Lampedusa should stay on the island as little as possible and then be looked after appropriately by communities around Italy," he said.
Children often bear terrible psychological and physical scars from their long journeys, which end with perilous crossings of the Mediterranean and have resulted in thousands of deaths in recent years.
Some have lost brothers, parents or friends.
One of the young migrants who met the pope was 15-year-old Amina from Eritrea, who was held prisoner in Sinai before managing to land in Italy.
Another was Osnam, 17, also an Eritrean, who was badly beaten in detention centres in Libya and now hobbles.
"How are you?" the pope asked him during the visit. He replied: "Okay now, but I went through terrible days."
So far this year, 411 unaccompanied minors have landed on Lampedusa -- three times more than over the same period last year, according to charity operators.
"The worst trauma for them are the Libyan detention camps," said Viviana Valastro, a project coordinator for Save the Children on the tiny island, an outcrop closer to north Africa than the Italian mainland.
"There they do not distinguish between adults and children and the minors are often subjected to violence, even torture, and they bear the wounds."